Britain to pull 500 troops from Afghanistan: Cameron

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Britain will withdraw 500 more troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, taking its contingent there to 9,000 as Afghan forces become increasingly confident, Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday.

His announcement of a modest reduction to the second largest foreign force in Afghanistan comes a fortnight after US President Barack Obama announced a drawdown ahead of the handover of security responsibility to the Afghan government by 2015.

Cameron said Britain had taken a "huge share of the burden" in Afghanistan, with 375 British soldiers having lost their lives since the US-led invasion following the September 11 attacks ten years ago.

"Last month, President Obama announced that the US would withdraw 10,000 of its forces by the end of this year and would complete the removal of the US surge -- some 33,000 -- by the end of the summer next year," Cameron said.

"At the time of the US surge, the UK increased its core force levels by an extra 500.

"For our part, I have already said we'll withdraw 426 UK military personnel by February 2012 and today I can announce that the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by a further 500 from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012."

Most of the 9,500 British troops currently in Afghanistan are based in the restive southern province of Helmand where they are fighting Taliban militants opposed to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Cameron said the reduction reflected the progress made by Afghanistan's fledgling army and police force.

"Having taken such a huge share of the burden, and having performed so magnificently for a decade, the country needs to know that there is an end point to the level of our current commitment and to our combat operations," he said.

"This decision is not only right for Britain, it is right for Afghanistan too. It has given the Afghans a clear deadline against which to plan and has injected a sense of urgency into their efforts."

Cameron said however that non-combat troops would remain in Afghanistan, mainly for training purposes, past 2014.

During his two-day visit to Afghanistan this week, Cameron announced in Kabul the creation of a Sandhurst-style military academy to train Afghan officers.

He declared progress in Afghanistan to be "on the right track" and Cameron made a plea to the Taliban to lay down their weapons and join the political process, and pointed to the example of Northern Ireland where erstwhile bitter foes now share power.

But his trip was overshadowed by the death of a British soldier who had earlier gone missing from his base in Helmand, where most British troops are based.

The mysterious death of 21-year-old Scott McLaren undermined Cameron's claim that security had improved enough for Britain to withdraw some troops soon.

McLaren was the 375th member of the British forces to die since the US-led invasion in October 2001, which came after the Taliban regime refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden died in a US raid in Pakistan in May.

Cameron's announcement comes after the Ministry of Defence confirmed Tuesday that a British drone had killed four Afghan civilians and wounded two more during an attack on a Taliban commander three months ago.

The ministry expressed "deep regret" for the deaths.

© 2011 AFP

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